8 July 2010

Scientists: Don‘t ask what Hollywood can do for you. Ask what you can do for Hollywood

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Jennifer Ouellette is a busy woman: besides working on the launch of her third book, The Calculus Diaries, blogging for Discovery’s Twisted Physics, and maintaining the popular Cocktail Party Physics blog, she is the director and spokeswoman for the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an initiative that aims to match  volunteer scientists with Hollywood producers and writers who want to make their storylines more scientifically accurate. This blogger for the The Plainspoken Scientist saw Jennifer’s presentation at the AAAS and ScienceOnline2010 meetings earlier this year. Later, I finally got the chance to interview Jennifer for our blog (third time’s the charm!) when she attended a DC Science Writers’ event at AGU’s headquarters.

Q: How was the Science and Entertainment Exchange program born?

JO: There’s always a serendipitous twist to these kinds of stories. In this case, National Academy of Sciences president Ralph Cicerone had a former student from UC Irvine who is now a vice president of development for director-producer Jerry Zucker and his wife, Janet Zucker (think “Airplanes” movies, “Ghost”, “Ruthless People”, and the forthcoming “Fair Game”). Janet and Jerry had been actively involved in passing legislation in California on behalf of stem cell funding and were keen on holding a symposium for the entertainment industry to hear world-class scientists talk about their work and mingle with them afterwards in a less formal environment. Ralph Cicerone was keen on creating a long-term conduit to foster similar exchanges. So they launched The Science and Entertainment Exchange in November 2008 with a big symposium, and the rest is history.

Q: You describe the initiative as a matchmaking program for Hollywood people and science. What is needed to ignite sparks between researchers and film writers?

JO: At the most fundamental level, you just need to create opportunities for folks from both worlds to relax and have conversations. I often say the hardest part of my job is overcoming scheduling conflicts. But I think the most crucial element in the program’s success so far has been the fact that it’s an equal partnership between science and entertainment−not just the scientific community swooping in to “save” Hollywood from its errant ways. It’s a two-way street: there is much that science can learn from Hollywood, particularly when it comes to communication and reaching mass audiences. The Zuckers are co-founders and serve as co-chairs on our advisory board, which is evenly split among leaders in the science and entertainment communities.

Q: What have been the program’s biggest achievements so far?

JO: Honestly, you don’t achieve a major cultural shift in perception in a year and a half, no matter how awesome your program. But there have definitely been some standout moments. Our launch symposium was a smashing success that gave the program tons of momentum in getting off the ground, and we’ve managed to continue that momentum into its second year. We’re slowly building a solid grassroots community of writers, directors, producers, production designers, and scientists of all stripes, and the major projects for which we’ve consulted are slowly trickling into the public sphere so we can actually talk about them and see how they turned out: Watchmen, Iron Man 2, and later this year, Tron: Legacy. We’ve also developed good ties with shows like Fringe, Eureka, The Big Bang Theory (which already had a terrific tech consultant), and so forth. We don’t just work with science fiction−we’ve answered a few short technical queries for Castle, for example, which is a crime-solving “dramedy”−but it’s true that those are the folks most likely to think to call us. As word continues to spread, we’re helping out on many more diverse projects these days.

We also hold special events such as screenings, panel discussions, and in-home salons. My favorites included the “Science of the Living Dead” screening we did with director George Romero, featuring two scientists talking about mathematical modeling of the spread of the zombie “virus” (epidemiology) and mapping of the zombie “brain,” all moderated by Max Brooks, author of “World War Z.” We held it at the Directors Guild of America and packed the room with zombie fans−who left with a new appreciation for the science of zombies. Seth McFarlane (The Family Guy) hosted a fantastic salon on evolution and paleontology, featuring eminent scientists Sean B. Carroll and Neal Shubin, and we even hosted a screening in Washington DC of the new Darwin biopic, Creation, featuring director Jon Amiel. (We’ll be reprising that screening at the Imagine Film Festival in New York City this October.) And we held a great session at the most recent AAAS meeting this past February on the science of superheroes, bringing in writers from the TV series Heroes and one of the screenwriters on Watchmen.

Q: Any surprising disappointments?

JO: I wouldn’t say there was anything surprising: occasional disappointments are part and parcel of getting a fledgling program off the ground. But we haven’t had any outright failures (fingers crossed!), which is frankly rather astounding to me. But I’ll take it! Our motto is to always have several irons in the fire at all times, and we’ll see which ones come together, and which just need to be discarded after a bit.

You don’t have smashing successes without also having a few things fall through the cracks. Mostly, things don’t fail outright, they just get tabled indefinitely−our own version of development hell. I just glean whatever lessons can be gained from the experience and move forward.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from the Hollywood people about the scientists they work with?

JO: It’s been overwhelmingly positive thus far. More importantly, we’re seeing some actual relationships develop, where a producer will feel comfortable contacting a scientist she or he has worked with in the past about a new project in development. That’s very gratifying to me, personally, because ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to foster.

If it ever gets to the point where science and Hollywood are interacting with each constantly, with no need for a mediator, the Exchange’s work will be done. Hey, we can dream.

Q: Have your own perceptions on Hollywood and science changed?

JO: I don’t think my overall perceptions have changed−I’ve always thought there were tons of smart, incredibly creative and innovative people working in both fields−but I have renewed respect for just how challenging it can be to produce a film or TV series at all, never mind pay attention to tiny scientific details that far too often can get lost in the chaos of production−as well as a new appreciation for all the scientists who have volunteered their time and expertise to make a project a tiny bit better, more plausible. Progress is made in baby steps, after all.

Q: What’s next for the Exchange?

JO: Over the last year, I’ve become very keen on looking for ways to make other connections, say, between science educators and Hollywood. There is enormous untapped potential for disseminating good science in DVD Blu-Ray bonus features, online interactive games tied to films and TV shows, and so forth−all making use of the existing publicity and marketing in Hollywood, rather than trying to build it up from scratch. I think it’s another “win-win” situation: Hollywood gets cool, innovative science-themed content tied into their films and TV shows, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping promote science literacy. And the scientific community can tap into a mass market it hasn’t had much success reaching thus far. This isn’t something the Exchange or any other stand-alone outreach program could do all on its own: our role, once again, is to be the facilitator that makes introductions and connects the relevant parties. We’re all just batting ideas around, having conversations, making introductions and so forth right now, but I’m very excited about the potential for this.

— Maria-José Viñas, AGU science writer

— Maria-José Viñas, AGU science writer